[00:02:18.0] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Dr. Gail Saltz. Gail is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell School of Medicine and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. She is a columnist, bestselling author, podcast host and television commentator and one of the nation’s foremost go-to experts on a variety of psychological and mental health issues, gaving appeared on Good Morning America, Dr. Oz, The View, Dateline, 20/20, Primetime Today, CNN and many more shows.
Gail, welcome to The Science of Success.
[00:02:53.8] GS: Thank you Matt for having me. This is such an important topic. People are very consumed with how to further themselves, but often lacking particular coping tools. So I’m really excited that you are having me today.
[00:03:07.6] MB: Well we’re thrilled to have you on here. So to kind of get started, tell us a little bit about your background and how you embarked on this journey?
[00:03:16.1] GS: Well, I am a psychiatrist. Actually originally after I finished medical school, I thought I was going to be an internist. So I did a residency in internal medicine and then I decided, “You know, I am really so much more fascinated with people’s minds,” that I decided to do residency in psychiatry, which I loved and then continue my training. I did a fellowship in treating of sexual dysfunction and then I did my psychoanalytic training.
So woe is my poor parents that paid for many, many tuitions but I had many different areas of training all leading to being a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and then ultimately, feeling that it was really important that many people, not just people who decided to enter treatment or could afford treatment could have access to understanding the tools that psychiatry and psychoanalysts can provide for their everyday lives. So I started talking with the lay public I’ll call it or public education through writing, through television, through radio.
Because it’s really, let’s put it this way: close to half of Americans do struggle with some sort of mental health issue and we can’t really afford to write off half and people are really limited in getting help for themselves often by stigma, feeling the embarrassed, they are not comfortable, they don’t want to acknowledge what’s going on or sometimes because they really don’t have access to it. So it’s really been my pleasure actually to be able to have methods of communicating with larger groups of people who are looking for ways to be emotionally “weller", let’s say. More intact, have more health, have better relationships, be better parents.
So that’s a lot of what I did and continue to do and then that has led to other interesting areas for exploring this issue one of them being, for example, I have had a few series at the New York City’s 92nd Street Y, which is an amazing cultural institution with all kinds of educative programming going on and one of the things that I do there is this psychobiography series where we look at iconic figures and sort of what made them tick.
[00:05:45.0] MB: And I’m really fascinated by the whole psychobiography series that you’ve done and I know a number of them are available on YouTube. Tell me about what is a psychobiography and what made you want to study these interesting and different people?
[00:05:59.6] GS: Well psychobiography is taking the field of, I would say psychoanalysis, what do we really understand about what shaped someone from their early life and also from psychiatry from their biological genetic givens? What shaped them into the person that they ultimately became? And I think that while you can’t diagnosed someone who’s deceased or really diagnosed someone who you’ve not treated or met, you can surmise quite a bit about the patterns of their lives and influences.
Of important people in their lives often from what they have expressed, via letters that we can find, via writings, behaviors that have been clearly documented. So I find historians for these different subjects. I try to choose people that I think people are very curious about because they have not only incredibly successful and changed the face of really history as we knew it in a particular field. So that could be the arts, it could be the sciences, it could be music.
I’ve done psychobiography’s on wide ranging, Vincent van Gogh to Albert Einstein to Mozart to Jackson Pollock to presidential past leaders, FDR and Lyndon Johnson. The idea is sort of, “What made them who they were and then in turn what they did with that and how that influences the rest of us throughout time really?” So I get a historian who’s really the expert on that subject and then I try to provide the psychoanalytic understanding of what we can gleam from their past behaviors.
It’s really fun, it’s really interesting and I think that an audience often can not only find it interesting but find some comfort in the idea that these people were far from perfect. In fact, what I found to be fascinating is that no matter who I look to as the subject, there is always some pretty major issues going on. A psychiatric illness or a learning disability or an early trauma but there is rarely someone who just had nothing going on that was really difficult in their past.
[00:08:38.0] MB: That’s such a fascinating finding and something that I think people especially in our modern society of social media and instant gratification and the idea of presenting a perfect image of yourself all the time, don’t really think about is that many or if not most, if not all of the people who have had a huge impact on history, on shaping our culture. These people dealt on real challenging mental issues in many cases.
[00:09:06.7] GS: Absolutely and it’s been really amazing to me how many audience members come up to me afterwards and say, “You know, this just really inspired me to think about, for example, my son who was let’s say is struggling with depression and I hear about Abraham Lincoln and his lifelong struggle with depression and the ways in which actually for example in that case, the features of say greater empathy when you’re a person who’s struggled with depression.
The ability to really tap into what other people are thinking and feeling and be very sensitive to that and how that helped Lincoln to be the kind of president that he was. That people say “Oh gosh this makes me feel like there’s a potential real strength for my child, or for myself, and I have overlooked that and I want to think about how I can tap into that for that loved one of mine and that is a wonderful thing because we tend to think of these issues as being solely negative and horrible, which is why they’ve been so stigmatized.
[00:10:21.9] MB: That’s fascinating and one of the things that I find really interesting is in many cases, people only hear about or concentrate or focus on the instances that somebody that’s had a serious breakdown or failure or whatever as a result of let’s say depression or anxiety or something like that. When in reality, many of these really important historical figures not only dealt with these major issues but overcame them and changed millions of lives, change the course of history, etcetera.
[00:10:54.7] GS: Absolutely and not only did they overcome them, but they often whatever they did let’s say that we find so astonishing and amazing is in some ways a direct result of the thing that they struggled with, that they are often very specifically connected and that led me to start doing some research and speaking with many neuroscientists and many clinicians and so I’ve spent the last few years actually talking with many people who actually you may not know and some who you will know and even some kids who struggled with exactly this.
Something really, really difficult but it’s clearly connected to some impressive strength for them and that has had me working on this book that will come out next March called The Power of Different: The link between disorder and genius, of which there is a significant link. So really look at the hard wiring, what’s going on there? Why that is? What do we know and understand about it? which is something that I explore on my current podcast, The Power of Different.
And I think you would be surprised that it’s not hard for me to find people to talk about this. That we tend to be such a celebrity oriented, perfection oriented society and we think, “Oh all of these people just did it from the get go and they’re so together.” When you scrape the surface really they would tell you that that’s not the case.
[00:12:34.5] MB: So I’m curious and I want to dig deeper into the whole idea behind the power is different, one of the things that you made a very important distinction that I did not make earlier is that it’s not just that they overcame these struggles. It’s that this in many ways, for example, Lincoln’s depression gave him this deeper empathy. It was the other side of the coin that this was their biggest strength and really shaped who they were as a person and shaped the great successes that they had in their lives.
[00:13:05.3] GS: Exactly. Of course I don’t want to say that people who are struggling with a real mental illness should not seek treatment and have treatment because they should. But having treatment and helping yourself in terms of struggling less does not in any way diminish the particular strengths that are associated with having that kind of problem. So for instance, in Lincoln’s day of course there were no treatments and actually in Lincoln’s day, melancholy which was depression was called, was not viewed the way it is today.
People with depression are often seen as kind of romantic figures or really pondering, really thoughtful let’s say and we now understand that that maybe true but it shouldn’t be romanticized. It really can cause terrible suffering. But on the flip side, Lincoln is a great example but I can give you a million examples but in his case say, his ability to tap into what other people were thinking and really be attuned to that, allowed him to bring in political partners and work with other groups and not erect a wall but instead extend himself and really get consensus by standing in other people’s shoes in a unique way, which is part of what made him such an amazing leader and president.
And of course, empathetically understanding that slavery was wrong and be extremely motivated to do something about that and in addition, another feature of depression is actually realism, which sounds like, “Well, so what?” But really, those of us who are not depressed to some degree we tend to see things a little bit through rose colored glasses. which is nice and really pleasant and it’s not that far off of “real” but it does tend to be on the optimistic side.
But people with depression, it’s not so much that they see things in a negative light that doesn’t exist. It’s that they tend to see things more realistically and in the case of Lincoln at a time when we were looking at a civil war that was hugely important. That made him able to anticipate things that were coming into view, which others might not have and again added to his being a particularly good leader at that time.
[00:15:37.9] MB: I’d love to hear another example either from the psychobiography series that you’ve done or somebody else maybe besides Lincoln that struggled with a different issue.
[00:15:49.4] GS: Sure, let’s see. Well Vincent van Gogh, obviously suffered tremendously. He obviously had a repeated apparently psychotic episodes which people debate with the diagnosis is. From my research into his various symptoms, it looks up from out here most like something called temporal lobe epilepsy, which is a psychiatric diagnosis. It means that you are having a seizure disorder but your seizure activity is in the temporal lobe, which is an emotional center.
And therefore, you don’t see movement like you do usually when we think of people with epilepsy and we think of them having a convulsion. We think that they are moving and when you are having seizure activity with temporal lobe epilepsy, what you get is this what’s called stickiness where you have these intense relationships, you are very clingy and attached to people but you also tend to fight with them a lot. So they are very labile relationships and that obviously was a negative for Vincent van Gogh.
You have mood fluctuations, which also obviously caused him a lot of pain and discomfort but what you also have is often visual and even auditory hallucinations and the visual hallucinations are often like intensely colorful and attached to emotional state and it is very possible that part of what motivated his painting in the way that he did had something to do with what he experienced, what he saw that he may have seen things in distorted ways, in unusually colored ways and that may have been very connected to his temporal lobe epilepsy.
[00:17:33.8] MB: What about somebody like a Da Vinci and an Einstein? Did either of them struggle with anything in particular? What did you find from conducting a psychobiography of them?
[00:17:42.1] GS: So Einstein of course is greatly argued about and again, I am clear that you can’t give a definitive diagnosis, but what is apparent is this: Einstein was an extremely poor student early on. By early, I mean through high school. He was often found to not be paying attention at all except to things that he really loved, which was physics and math and teachers often became very irritated and were punishing and he left school and ultimately come back to school at some point.
And he had a lot of difficulty in his relationships, many things which sort of smacked of, I guess I’ll say attention deficit disorder meaning he would be very distractible about things that were not interesting to him but extremely hyper focused on things that were interesting to him. Hyper focus is something that is a side effect which if used well, I guess I’ll say can really be an incredible strength but unfortunately in today’s…
For example, teenage boys struggling with ADD, they tend to hyper focus maybe on video games which are very rewarding and obviously not something that is necessarily going to produce a genius finding and so that is a difficult thing for parents but in the case of Albert Einstein, his greatest discoveries and greatest papers about the universe really occurred within a one week period. There were three different findings and they were three different papers.
And they all happened while he was working in the patent office, a very menial job that he found to be boring and it brought in some money so that he could survive but it was not exciting as this other area and he sort of sequestered himself for this week and was so intensely focused that he produced this really extraordinary, I mean of course obviously Einstein was intellectually in this area clearly a genius. But his ability to daydream, he talked about that he started this study so to speak by just looking out the window and imagining that he was riding a light beam.
And that was a big part of who Einstein was. His ability to daydream, to think creatively, to let his mind wander and something that annoyed the heck out of teachers who at that time didn’t want his mind wondering, they want him to be studying whatever they were teaching him but that’s what he did. That’s who he was and on the flip side was that it really informed his ability to think outside the box in these very creative ways, something that really is known to go along with attention deficit disorder and then hyper focus, when it came to an area that really interested him.
[00:20:40.6] MB: And for listeners who are curious, I am a big fan of Einstein. One of my favorite biographies of his is the Walter Isaacson Biography, which I’ll throw into the show notes.
[00:20:49.9] GS: Yeah, that’s an amazing and incredibly well done biography and I think that he really makes clear his early school struggles and many other features that actually are consistent with this kind of thing.
[00:21:05.4] MB: Another psychobiography that you have done was one of my favorites and I am also a huge fan of his is Leonardo da Vinci. What was some of the learnings from that?
[00:21:14.0] GS: Well we have much less available to look at obviously because it was so long ago. When you look at people, the farther you go back in history, often the less you can find because of course, less survives and so there is less people to say things but again, he was remarkably able obviously to think in these many different directions because we think of Leonardo da Vinci, we think of him being a great painter and of course he was.
But he also came up with this many inventions that were related to military practice, flying and so he was a thinker in so many different directions but again, from an intentional perspective he was interested in solving a problem and that’s where the interest ended. So he is also rather famous for not completing things and painting projects, he would solve what he deemed to be the problem in the creation of the painting or the invention and then it was left.
And so sadly for him, he had trouble getting paid for things. He had trouble in that sense making a living or completing things but he again, you wonder about his ability to attend or in that sense, buckle down but at the same time, it left his mind free to really be creative and out of the box in so many different directions that he was viewed certainly at least as extremely accomplished by those who noted what he at least started.
[00:22:59.4] MB: Let’s zoom out a little bit, you touched on this earlier that you have a new podcast called the Power of Different, tell me a little bit more about that.
[00:23:08.3] GS: So it’s trying to understand the same thing in the sense but with today’s people. Trying to understand and help people see the ways in which they may struggle earlier on weather that is something difficult that’s happened in their lives and maybe a mental health issue, it may be a learning issue but it might also be a loss that they had. Recently interviewed Stacy London who talked about her early struggles with complete body psoriasis, which socially made life extremely hard for her and also, synthesized her to the issue of body and beauty and ultimately probably contributed to having eating disorder, a body image issue.
So a lot of her growing was really difficult and she had a lot of struggle but ultimately, that became very connected to the idea of in her mind of how can someone feel beautiful in their own way that isn’t necessarily directly connected to conventional beauty? Because this is something she really struggled with.
That ultimately led to her movement into that field and her application of the thoughts that she’d struggled with to other people and certainly something she could sympathize and empathize with and so she has really made a highly successful career in television and in writing and into consulting and working for Vogue and so many things. All around this issue of body image and styling for anybody’s body. So anybody should be able to feel attractive and comfortable in their own skin and authentic and beautiful not related to just cultural standards.
[00:25:12.5] MB: Who are some of the other guests that you’ve had on and what have you learned from their experiences?
[00:25:16.6] GS: Well so, I am just getting rolling and it is fairly new but let’s see, Dov Seidman. He is the CEO of a company that’s made many, many millions of dollars. A highly successful company. It’s a legal company that helps other businesses with compliance, with how to be ethical and compliant and create that culture in their business, which is something as you can well imagine is very needed today.
But Dov is a man who, and he’s been highly successful. But Dov is a man who has severe dyslexia and failed out of school, just had a terrible, terrible time and he really tells the story of this experience of feeling broken and repeated failure and how it has informed his movement along the way. Ultimately, he was able to make his way to Harvard Law School, which is really an amazing story and create this very successful business.
But it was important to him that the business be around this issue of honesty and ethics and authenticity. That really came out of early struggles that he had and that’s what he’s been successful in. Actually up now is Steve Silberman, who you might know as the author of NeuroTribes, which is an award winning and bestselling book about autism and the particular strengths that come along with autism. So he is very, very extensively versed in this area and we talk about that.
[00:26:53.4] MB: So for somebody who’s listening right now and maybe they are struggling with anxiety, depression, something like that, they see somebody like Lincoln who overcame some of these struggles but they still feel helpless. What sort of practical steps could they take towards applying some of these lessons and applying the concept of the Power of Different?
[00:27:15.1] GS: So what I would say is this, when you are struggling with something, you should absolutely get an evaluation and potentially treatment depending on what that evaluation shows. Because there are many treatments, let just say depression for example. Some of which you can do on your own for example exercise greatly impacts depression and I’m not talking about a walk around the park. I mean 30 minutes of vigorous multiple times a week exercise, which is both preventive in terms of depression but also just as effective as medication for mild to moderate depression.
And so there are things that one can do for themselves like mindfulness, exercise, eating well, sleeping well and then there are things that treatment can provide, psychotherapies that can be extraordinarily helpful and/or medications that can be helpful depending on how severe the situation is. So one should definitely treat themselves and because there is no reason to struggle. But at the same time, you want to spend some time on that. You also want to spend some time on trying to identify what you’re strengths are.
So I think sitting with yourself and thinking about things that you do see that you are good at, let’s say, and you have been able to do in the past or sometimes people really have difficulty identifying this, therapist could help with that. Sometimes actually a career counselor could even help with that. There are particular self-test one can administer to look at what your particular strengths are. But you do want to hone in on those strengths and how can they be applicable in the world wide environment and you want to spend time honing those things.
So if empathy is a strength of yours, you want to think about the ways in which you employ that in the world and have some focus on that as well and think about whether for instance are you in a job or career where you can use empathy? And if you’re not, do you want to move in that direction in some way to try to be able to use it more since it is one of your strengths?
[00:29:28.2] MB: And this segues a little bit into a previous book that you have written. I am curious, how do we get trapped in defeating stories that we tell ourselves?
[00:29:38.8] GS: Ah yes, well we all do and so I don’t want to say, “Oh there’s something wrong with the person who does.” It’s very common for early in life to have a narrative, your own story that you tend to say, “This is who I am and this is why.” It becomes part of our character really and when you play that loop over and over again, it reinforces it and it’s really hard to see your way out of it. So in that book, I try to detail for people the most common stories.
Some people are very self-defeating or masochistic. Some people are very dependent on others and feel they must be or some people feel very inhibited and feel they can’t break out of that shell because there are so many things that they have to be afraid of in revealing themselves and feeling rejected potentially. You know there an infinite numbers of stories that one could tell themselves but it’s based in psychoanalysis or psychodynamic work to try to understand or self-analyze what your particular stories are and ways that you might measure them, let’s say, against reality.
And consider the possibility that they are rooted more in your mind than in truth or in the outside world and ways that you might amend those stories. Because one’s self-perception greatly guides how you act in the world and then what you put out there, people tend to reflect back. So you can really change your trajectory, not to mention the happiness that you have because of how you feel about yourself by really reevaluating those stories.
[0:31:24.4] MB: So how can we go about amending or sort of rewriting some of this stories?
[0:31:30.3] GS: I think that the number one goal is to identify the stories that you have, even if self-observation goes a long way and sometimes when you really zero in and realize, “Oh yeah, I really do think that about myself,” sometimes even just the observation helps you to change it. I often tell people to sort of write down those scripts, those stories and you know, ponder them.
Give them some thought. Think about whether, you might want to amend some of them, you want to try writing a slightly different script. Maybe I feel like I always have to for example be subservient to my partner, they really should always come first because I don’t deserve to be coming first and then try on for size an amended story. No, I really, you know, I deserve as much as anyone, I’m going to put myself first half of the time and we’ll have to make compromises and you have to sort of embrace that story and go out and give it some test runs.
[0:32:39.0] MB: So that actually brings up another topic that I’m curious about. I know you’re a deep expert on sex and relationships and that’s something that we’ve spent very little time on our show but obviously, something that’s vital to living kind of a happy and productive life. For such a deep topic that I’m sure we could talk for hours about, with the little time that we do have, what are some actionable insights or kind of concrete take away that you might be able to share with our audience in terms of improving in that area of your life?
[0:33:09.8] GS: Well, it’s huge, let me just say. So I’ll obviously be scraping the surface but I think people often forget that relationships really are the number one source of happiness in life. It’s not money, it’s not fame even though a lot of millennials often feel like it is. But it really is the quality of the relationships in your life and those take work, they really do and they can never be one sided, that never ends up working even if you feel like you’re always on the receiving end. Ultimately the other person won’t stay and won’t be happy.
So it is about compromise and that means it is about a lot of communicating, it is about sitting down and being willing to listen. I would say, if you could add one thing to your relationship now, you would be that you’re really listening to your partner, your friend, you’re mirroring back what you heard so they feel understood, and then you’re asking for the same thing that they take a turn and listen to you. That they be able to express what they heard from you. That is usually the first step in really having good communication, which ultimately, because everybody has to compromise in relationships is what leads to longevity and stability in relationships.
[0:34:30.2] MB: What can we do to be better listeners?
[0:34:33.3] GS: Well, in short form, sometimes you got to shut up. It’s hard because we’re always feeling like, “I want to get my stuff out, I want to get my stuff out.” But sometimes you do have to just be quiet and put down your phone and your computer and what you’re reading and sit and look at the other person and hear what they’re saying and after you’ve listened for a little while, you want to say back to them what you think you heard so they can correct you if in fact you’re hearing through the prison with your own feelings and you didn’t quite get it.
You want to give it a few chances to make sure that you’re really listening and getting it before you have a response and in today’s world, we tend to be like, “You know, I’m listening to you for 30 seconds and then I got to answer my email and I’m looking at this, “Oh, this beeped.” We have trouble attending to the people who really actually are important in our lives. I would say that active listening is what I’m talking about and it’s very important.
[0:35:36.1] MB: For the topics that we discussed today, what are some potential resources where people can kind of do some research, find out more, kind of dig in and learn about this topics?
[0:35:46.9] GS: Wow, we talked about a lot of topics so if you’re interested in psycho biography and actually it so happens that as you pointed out, some of them are up on YouTube but most of them are up on the 90 second street wise website, 92Y.org and so if that kind of content interests you, you can find them all there, there are many. I will be talking about this concept of finding the strengths and our differences on my podcast, The Power of Different podcast.
When it comes to trying to improve your relationships, I think there’s so many resources, although, some are better than others to be perfectly honest. There are I would say, I actually often write about relationships for health, magazine and health.com but there are many I think good authors in the arena of relationships. Carlo Hendricks is a wonderful write, has written numerous books on love and relationships and active listening and I think he’s very good.
The Love Lab, which is in Seattle, puts out a lot of great information about relationships and many wonderful writings, I think they’re very helpful and I think if you’re having a very particular kind of problem, it’s very reasonable to seek therapy, which is better earlier than later if you’re really having a struggle in your relationship.
[0:37:12.5] MB: What does one piece of homework that you would give our listeners?
[0:37:16.6] GS: For relationships, I actually would say, it’s wonderful to — two things I would say for your partner relationship, I would sayfo home, try to practice active listening with taking turns and doing that but I would also say that in our frenetic and emotionally charged lives, we often forget to just be affectionate to our partners, I’m talking about sex which is very important but I’m just talking about holding hands or putting your hand on your partner’s neck and give him a squeeze or giving your partner just a kiss because that can be so much of you know, I love you, I like you, I want to be with you, you’re important to me, we often just forget to do that, we just zoom in for just the sex or nothing. That in between affection can make all the difference.
[0:38:15.3] MB: Where can people find you online?
[0:38:17.8] GS: Well, let’s see. I have a website at www.doctorgailsaltz.com, they can tweet me, @doctorgailsaltz, I have a Facebook page that can find me there. So there are many methods of finding me. I love to get questions, I do answer them and I’m happy to do it.
[0:38:38.9] MB: Well Gail, thank you so much for being on this show, this has been a fascinating discussion and really, really interesting to kind of dig in and learn about a number of historical figures who have overcome — or not even overcome but really leveraged what many would consider sort of stigmatized problems or mental illnesses and achieved incredible results.
[0:38:58.4] GS: Thank you so much for having me, it was really a pleasure.
[0:39:01.0] MB: Thank you for being on the show.